Transcript of Assistant Attorney General John P. Carlin’s Briefing at the Foreign Press Center on the Foreign Terrorist Threat and Other National Security Issues
MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Welcome to the New York Foreign Press Center. This is an on-the-record briefing on Department of Justice measures to combat violent extremism with Assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin. We’re very pleased to host him today. I would like to ask, after his initial remarks we’ll go to Q&A, and please wait for the microphone and please identify yourself.
Thank you. Mr. Carlin.
CARLIN: Thank you. Good afternoon. At the Department of Justice, the National Security Division was the first new litigating division created in about 50 years. And we were created in 2006 as one of the post-9/11 reforms. And our number one mission, simply, is to prevent terrorist attacks here inside the United States. And our mission, first and foremost, when it comes to ISIL is to prevent attacks against U.S. citizens here in the United States and abroad. And we work in coordination with our law enforcement intelligence community partners and with countries around the world to ensure that we can disrupt terrorist actors before they commit those acts.
This is a good week with United Nations General Assembly in town and the Global Counterterrorist Forum to take a step back and talk a little bit less about our efforts to protect U.S. citizens and more about our responsibilities as global partners to prevent terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world. We have a fundamental responsibility to prevent ISIL from having U.S. citizens join ISIL in its campaign to rape, to commit sexual slavery and to murder innocent civilians, including children, as tactics. And so together last year, when I was here in New York for these same events, we worked on the UN Security Council Resolution 2178, which was an unprecedented mandatory resolution for every country around the world to work to put laws on the books to prevent foreign terrorist fighters from their country from going to join the fight and also to take steps to keep them from returning to commit terrorist attacks once they left the battleground in Iraq or Syria.
Since that resolution last year, we commend the over 20 nations that since last year have put new laws on the books that are specifically designed to combat the support for these foreign terrorist organizations either through actual citizens from their countries or from providing material or financial support. And among those since last year, over three dozen nations have taken law enforcement actions – have arrested individuals before they could go join these foreign terrorist organizations.
At the Justice Department we’ve provided assistance both in the legislation and as some countries try using these statutes for the first time. And we’ve sent our prosecutors over the last year on countless trips to work hand-in-hand with foreign partners all over the world as they draft these new laws.
We also house and support Interpol. And since last year, when there was a commitment by countries at this very event – and in conjunction with 2178 and also with the Global Counterterrorism Forum that consists of over 30 countries, there was a new commitment to provide information to Interpol, which we house and support. And since last year, that has resulted in six times the amount of information being shared, approximately 4,000 new profiles on foreign terrorist fighters, from over 45 countries.
And we recognize, to talk a little bit about what we face in the United States versus other countries as they face this foreign terrorist fighter threat, although the overall number some put at 25,000 or 30,000 individuals – and that’s higher than what we saw even at the height of the conflict in Afghanistan and the FATA – that when it comes to the numbers that are from the United States, our numbers are lower, particularly even compared to our Western partners. And we have about – we estimate around 250 U.S. citizens who have either attempted to or gone over to fight, or who have gone over and returned. That number also includes those we’ve arrested.
Since about last year, we’ve brought criminal cases against 70 individuals. Sixty of those individuals, it was for conduct related to either supporting foreign terrorist fighters or attempting to join the group. The other 10 is a trend that we’ve started to see here in the United States since ISIL changed its tactics and called on individuals to commit terrorist attacks where they live, particularly in Western countries. We have over 10 criminal cases brought to date of individuals inspired by ISIL or other terrorist groups to commit attacks here in the United States. So between the 60 who wanted to join the foreign terrorist fighter groups and the 10 who wanted to commit attacks here in the United States, that’s how we have over 70 cases.
In terms of trends inside the United States, in almost every case social media is involved. Unlike some other countries, we’re not seeing it in any particular geographic part of the United States nor confined to any ethnic group. The FBI currently has open investigations in all 50 states, and we have brought criminal cases in 25 different jurisdictions to date across the United States, so places that have not traditionally confronted a foreign terrorist threat.
Consistent with the fact that this is a social media-driven threat here, in over 50 percent of the cases the defendants are 25 years or younger, and in over a third of the cases they are 21 years or younger. And for us in confronting the terrorist threat, that is different than the demographic we saw who went to support core al-Qaida in the Afghanistan FATA (Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) region.
I think what you’ll hear tomorrow under the President of the United States, leadership is the summit that he’s convening of countries throughout the world – over 60 countries – dedicated to combating this terrorist threat. And what you’ll see is a focus – in addition to the efforts that I’ve talked about to date, the law enforcement criminal justice efforts – is a focus on efforts to prevent it from ever reaching the law enforcement system in the first place. And that means working on countering the message and propaganda that ISIL uses to draw recruits from our communities, and it means exposing ISIL for what it really is and not what it pretends to be.
They put out images of child soldiers handing out candy to children, but in reality they’re a group that beheads and kills Muslims and non-Muslims alike with equal impunity, that rapes and sells women and children into sexual slavery, and that deliberately looks to destroy the cultural heritage of the countries in which it resides. So a law enforcement response is essential, and we need to continue the progress that we’ve made since last year’s resolution. But it also can only be part of the answer, and others need to dissuade would-be foreign fighters from joining ISIL in the first place.
You’ll see the Attorney General of the United States convene a first-of-its-kind Safe Cities Forum tomorrow as well that will consist of mayors across the United States but also from other countries across the world, because fundamentally dissuading individuals in the first instance from joining these types of groups is going to require local-level, community-driven engagement. And so I think tomorrow’s forum, the Safe Cities Forum, is going to work and introduce mayors to each other so they can talk about best practices at keeping these individuals from ever going down the path of radicalization.
I will stop there and open it up for questions.
QUESTION: Hajime Matsuura, Japan, Sankei's columnist here based in New York. A question about the most – the breakdown of the social media ISIL is using. Do you have the breakdown of which social media is popular and how you’re working with the host of or owners of the social media?
CARLIN: So when it comes to social media, I think you see ISIL use pretty much every available service that they can find, and they target people according to who uses the service. So – and it’s different depending on which country that you’re in, although it is a global problem. So here in the United States, we’re seeing it with those who are using sites that are frequented by English-language speakers or are popular in the United States. And that really ranges through the most familiar names, be it Twitter to Facebook to YouTube videos.
And what they do is they blast out these often slickly-produced, propagandistic messages using the same type of techniques that Madison Avenue advertisers use to put out images like handing out candy to children, or they’ll have an ISIL soldier in the caliphate with a kitten in one hand and a gun in the other and they’ll say, “Come join the caliphate.” They bombard the internet with thousands and thousands of these messages a day, and the number of people who respond to them is a tiny, tiny percentage of those who they reach with that message, but it only takes a very small number from each country to either prevent or present a terrorist threat our home country, but also to reach the numbers that they’re reaching of getting people to join the fight when you’re talking about having that message reach 100 different countries.
So to the extent they’re able to get people who are language or cultural experts, then they will use those individuals who have joined ISIL already to target a particular country or audience.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Diego Senior from Caracol Radio in Colombia. I know you’re focusing on ISIL, but this is a question that I have to ask, and it’s about a terrorist organization – deemed terrorist organization by the U.S. government in Colombia. And they just reached this peace accord – not a complete peace accord, but one regarding transitional justice in our country. I’m wondering what the strategy from your department or from wherever within the Justice Department is capable of doing. What are you guys doing or thinking to do facing terrorism – that terrorism threat which it might stop be or at some point – when will you stop calling them terrorists since they’re going to give in their weapons?
CARLIN: So I’ll describe generally. In the American legal system, the model that we’ve used to confront the international terrorist threat is using a statute called the material support to terrorism statute. As we’ve discussed, as countries around the world are putting new statutes on their books, this is one model that they’ve – that some countries have elected to follow. And what it hinges upon is there’s a formal process for the designation of a group or an individual as an international terrorist organization, and then the criminal consequences of that designation follow. So to the extent that there is an armistice, what would be the key for those of us in the prosecution and law enforcement community would be whether or not they remove the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) as a designated terrorist organization as part of the reconciliation process, and so we’ll wait and see what occurs in that regard.
And obviously, long-term, and this includes ISIL, the endgame – we need to use law enforcement and prosecution as a tool to prevent these terrorist attacks from occurring, but we recognize that the long-term solution is one that requires the participation of states and local governments to prevent these groups from existing in the first place, and that’s what success looks like. And that’s why I think you’ll see the President tomorrow emphasize the need to combat violent extremism and the Attorney General at the Safe Cities event talk to mayors about getting rid of those root causes to that these groups don’t exist in the first instance.
MODERATOR: We have a question from Washington. Washington, please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Anatoly Bochinin, TASS News Agency, Russia. Sir, as you said today, this ISIL problem affects many countries – also Russia. So my question is: do you cooperate with Russian security services? And are you going to work with this new informational center in Baghdad which will be established these days? Thank you.
CARLIN: So I’ll say that generally, that the FBI has partnerships with law enforcement agencies throughout the world, and some countries have made a real dedicated push to share intelligence or law enforcement information regarding the terrorist threat. Some countries have work to do in that regard, but it’s going to take a partnership when it comes to combating these foreign terrorist organizations. And we’ve seen improvements, like I discussed in terms of Interpol and sharing information about terrorist identities, or since last year, with a dedicated focus on this, the number of terrorist identities has increased six times. We have 4,000 identities into that system.
It needs to improve further, and we hope it will.
QUESTION: Thank you. Harriet Alexander from The Telegraph. You spoke about the 250 estimated citizens who’ve gone or attempted to go, and those against which you’ve got criminal cases. I wondered if you’d talk a little bit more about the backgrounds of those people, just generally. I ask because in Europe, we find that an awful lot of people who are going to join these organizations have already got criminal records and have previously spent time specifically in prison. That was very much the case in France with the Paris attacks and with the Toulouse attacks. And I just wondered if you could talk a little bit about any de-radicalization programs that you may have in prisons.
CARLIN: That’s a good question, Harriet. So I’d say in terms of the trends that what we’ve seen is there isn’t a particular profile other than the common factors that I discussed, which is, one, in almost every case there’s some connection to social media; and two, the general demographic trending young. And as you can imagine, as it trends younger and younger, these are not people with long criminal histories inside the United States. And although we remain very much vigilant and concerned about the issue of prison radicalization and what occurs to individuals when they are released, that has not comprised currently the majority of the cases that we’ve seen.
What we are seeing is with this new focus on targeting the young or the unstable, that they’ll attract individuals who you would not necessarily think of as being ISIL adherents but end up going down the process of radicalization after being exposed through one of these general social media sites. And then what they do often is once they have someone on the hook, if you will, they end up in direct communication in some of these cases – so the terrorist overseas is in direct communication with the young person or troubled person here, personally walking them down the path towards radicalization using social media. And this is new, I know, for the United Kingdom, having talked to counterparts there, and for the United States. In terms of a trend, I think both our countries together are struggling on new approaches to combat what is a new strategy or tactic by the terrorist group.
It is different than – although we still remain concerned, and al-Qaida still has the intent to commit the large-scale spectacular attack against a Western target, as does al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and al-Nusrah, the al-Qaida franchise in the Syria region. So we remain concerned and need to disrupt that large-scale spectacular attack, but this new tactic of urging people to commit the attack, even small-scale, immediately – we use the expression sometimes “the short flash to bang,” which is social media-driven, which means if you think about a fuse of dynamite, the time between when you light the fuse and when the dynamite explodes is very, very short. That’s a hard problem for the intelligence community and law enforcement to crack and really is going to rely on partnerships.
QUESTION: Hi there. Justin Fishel with ABC. I have two quick questions. The first is about the migration issue and the refugee crisis. As you know, the U.S. wants to bring in 85,000 refugees from Syria next year, and there are some sort of opposing views about whether this – there’s risks associated with this and risks of ISIL infiltration. So what’s your assessment of that risk and plan to combat it? Then I have one more other question.
CARLIN: Look, our job in the law enforcement/intelligence community is to see what the decision is by policymakers to try to accommodate those who are in a terrible situation and who are facing unbelievable brutality, both by the regime and by ISIL. And whatever decision is made, then we need to work and apply the resources to make sure that the terrorist groups don’t try to take advantage of a humanitarian gesture to get individuals predisposed to commit terrorist attacks either in Europe or the United States. And we’ve faced that sort of challenge before and we’ll apply the resources necessary to combat it.
QUESTION: Okay. My last question, more a domestic politics issue. Your division of the Justice Department is overseeing the email review, and the one piece of clarification I think – and one of the things that got really confused throughout this whole thing was why this is not a criminal probe but the – there are federal – there are people like yourselves involved in it, so how is it that it is not criminal? That’s something that I think a lot of people are confused about, and I apologize to my colleagues for the domestic nature of this question.
CARLIN: Well, I’m going to stick to the foreign press questions for this event.
QUESTION: I’m Sajidu Haque from Bangladeshi television channel. Do you think Bangladesh fall in high risk in near future? Because some existing terrorist group, like ISIL and al-Qaida, they are all in Pakistan, and Bangladesh, Pakistan, India fall in high risk.
CARLIN: I’m sorry, I didn’t fully catch the question.
QUESTION: Do you think near future, Bangladesh fall in high risk for terrorism – in terrorism?
CARLIN: Oh, do I think that there’s a high risk of terrorism occurring in Bangladesh?
CARLIN: I confess to not being an expert in terms of what the risks are of terrorist attacks occurring inside Bangladesh. I’d say more generally, as we’ve seen, this is a phenomenon that has already crossed in an unprecedented way. It has foreign terrorist fighters from over 100 countries. I believe Bangladesh is one of those 100 countries. And there is a concern, certainly, if any citizen goes over to fight with one of those foreign terrorist groups, what happens when they return armed, trained on how to commit attacks, and spending a long time being steeped in this ideology? So in that sense there’s a concern that cuts across all of these countries.
And the other issue would be the same social media phenomenon of individuals who stay at home and are contacted by this terrorist group and are encouraged to commit, if they can’t travel, terrorist acts where they live.
QUESTION: Vasco Jesus, VascoPress Communications, Brazil. (Inaudible.) Is there any sharing of information, collaboration, between the government of Brazil and United States, your department, concerning the threat of international terrorism? I ask you this because next year – well, Brazil doesn’t have a history of international terrorism on its borders, but next year Brazil is hosting the Summer Games, and our neighbor Argentina in the ‘90s had two huge cases – the AMIA (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association) case and the bombing of the Israeli consulate. I would like you to comment on those, thank you.
CARLIN: I’d say prior to each of the last Olympics – and this is the world in which we live now – I know that we have offered assistance, including the sharing of information, primarily through the channel of the FBI and law-enforcement-to-law-enforcement channels, but also in others, to help protect not only our own citizens participating in the games but to help protect the games themselves. And I know we have extended and will extend similar outreach to Brazil and look forward to working as appropriate with their authorities to help protect the games.
QUESTION: So far?
CARLIN: I’d have to refer you probably over to FBI or other avenues to talk about current efforts to date.
QUESTION: Sorry, me again. Can I just ask for a bit more information about this Safe Cities Forum? So what actually do you think will come out of that? I mean, is that just a talking shop where people are going to be exchanging ideas, or do you think that there’ll be concrete policies and agreements resulting from that?
CARLIN: I think it is both. It is, one, to make sure to focus individuals’ attention on this issue and to make sure that there’s a channel for community-to-community engagement. But I also think they hope to, if not at that forum, to kick it off into smaller sessions to develop best practices, similar to the type of best practices we’ve developed through the Global Combating Terrorist Forum that led to resolutions like encouraging certain changes in the criminal code, like protecting classified information and figuring out a way to do that while preserving due process or undercover operations. That’s been the type of best practice produced in my space, in the space of a group focused on criminal prosecutions. I think for the mayors, they’re hoping when it comes to combating violent extremism that similarly there may be some community-based, local-oriented best practices for cities to take into account when they’re developing their own programs as to how to keep people from going down this path in the first instance.
QUESTION: Alexey Osipov from Israeli Novosti. Most of the international media and of course politicians are politically correct; they call terrorism as at least international, but for sure 99 percent of terrorism has specific religion or specific nationality. In your department, in your office, do you use words like “Islamic terrorist,” “anti-Israel terrorism,” “Palestinian terrorism,” et cetera?
CARLIN: So for us as lawyers under our statutes, we have the full remit for the prosecution of terrorist cases. When it comes to international terrorism, the statute that we use, as I was describing earlier, is based on whether or not the particular group is designated as an international terrorist group. So it keys off identifying that group and then if you provide any support – financial, even yourself to support to the group – you fall within our criminal laws. So I wouldn’t – I don’t indict a religion or a nationality, but the name of the designated terrorist group will be in the indictment.
For our domestic terrorism groups, those without an international connection, there is not a similar statute in U.S. law. There’s a definition of terrorism that works as a sentencing enhancement and for certain evidentiary purposes, but usually what we’re charging will be the actual criminal conduct, because many times under our system – and this is different than most countries throughout the world – because of the First Amendment and our dedication to free speech and free expression and the way it plays out in our legal system, in many instances talking the talk, if you will, in support of these groups is not sufficient for a criminal charge. You have to show some type of overt act in furtherance of a violation of a criminal statute.
QUESTION: Me again. For domestic enforcement, sort of ethnic or racial profiling has been an issue under scrutiny. How about your stance with this regard? And is there any possibility that you’re using that kind of screening?
CARLIN: So you cannot profile an individual based on their – or target an individual and use legal tools against an individual based solely upon their First Amendment-protected rights under our guidelines. And as I said, when it comes to who that profile would be, at least with our current version of the ISIL terrorist threat, what we’re seeing is a threat that cuts across all 50 states, where we’ve currently brought criminal cases in over 25 different jurisdictions and where there’s little in common between the 70 individuals who are currently charged other than some connection to social media and being connected to one of these groups.
And so I think we do need to look for – this is a lesson even in the criminal realm – but is to make parents, community members aware of what could be going on with their friend or neighbor when they’re on social media, because it’s new for a lot of parents that they’re facing this type of threat, and look for those signs which both law enforcement but also community organizations are putting out of someone who’s started down this path of radicalization.
According to one study of cases that did end up in the criminal justice system, in 80 percent of those cases there was someone who saw that process of radicalization occurring, and in over half of those cases they did not take a step to intervene. So if we can improve those numbers and have people in the community take steps to intervene, hopefully we can reduce the number of people that ever enter the criminal system.
MODERATOR: We are out of time. I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you very much.
CARLIN: Thank you.